The Missing Hokage
26: Several Plans Coming Together, All At Once
Fingers drumming the table hard enough to vibrate a nearby bowl drowned out the sound of utensils scraping against porcelain as the group ate in silence. Looking more closely, those nearby could make out indentations individual fingers had pounded into the hard wood. Add to that, killing intent flooded the room, cycling in intensity every few seconds—and all of it directed at one woman: Mitarashi Anko. The special-jonin in question, however, seemed completely unphased as she calmly ate her rice and washed it down with a sip of green tea. On the inside though, Anko was giggling like a little girl. In the background, the staff of the inn Team Hokage had elected to stay the night in were conspicuously absent, and had been since the pale-eyed demoness had risen from her slumber and joined the group for breakfast with an especially groggy blond at her side.
Hinata was frustrated, annoyed, and quite frankly in the mood to kill the smug kunoichi sitting directly across from her and would, if it weren't for the knowledge that Naruto would be upset if she plastered Anko's smug face against the far wall in a fine red pulp. The cause of her ire could be found in the boy sitting to her right trying to be as unobtrusive as possible while still managing to eat between yawns. Tsunade's group had booked several rooms at a hot spring inn as soon as they'd reached the main town of Wave the previous evening and then proceeded to hit the springs—which were, very inconveniently in Hinata's reasoning, separated by sex. Keeping an ear on activity from Naruto's side of the spring, Hinata made her excuses and left the bath as soon as she heard Naruto finish drying off and leave. Drying herself, she had quickly caught up to her favorite blond and cornered him in their room, making sure to lock the door behind her in the process. Two discarded towels and some embarrassed (on Naruto's part) nakedness later had found her perched atop the foxy blond and all set to finally commit to the deed. And that's when things went south—only not in the way Hinata had intended.
Two sets of fuzzy ears twitched towards the door as quiet footsteps came to a stop in front of it. Hinata's eyes narrowed in annoyance at the sound of a lock being deftly picked. Leaning up and reaching under Naruto's pillow for a spare set of kunai, and enjoying the way his eyes gravitated towards her breasts in the process, Hinata flung the pair of kunai into the sliding door's track just as it was being slid open, jamming it.
"Didn't you learn the first time?" she shot towards the door before leaning forward to draw Naruto's attention back towards her.
A quiet 'pfft!' and a twitch of the whiskers was the only warning either got as the sound of something smacking flesh resounded through the room. "Ow! What the hell?"
Reaching down, Hinata found and removed the projectile that had impacted with her soon-to-be lover's thigh. Examining it more closely revealed it to be a dart, of the kind fired from a blowgun. And from the doorway came a confirming snort and a quiet taunt of, "Of course I learned from last time."
"Hin.. ata-cha.. n?" Naruto half-mumbled, half-slurred below her, his voice starting to slur and his eyes mostly closed. "I feel kinda... funny," the boy got out before his eyes closed and his body went slack. A small trail of drool escaped the corner of the blond's mouth even as Hinata felt his 'attention' wane against her backside.
Eyes shooting between the dart and her blond was-to-have-been lover, Hinata sat frozen for several moments as, out in the hall, Anko's sniggering grew louder. "You..." Flinging the dart away, the ex-Hyuuga unconsciously flooded the inn with killing intent, which only made Anko laugh harder. "You... cockblock!" Anko was long gone by the time Hinata ripped the door from its track. The former Hyuuga went back to bed frustrated, vowing revenge against the elder kunoichi if it were the last thing she did.
To make matters worse, Hinata had woken up to find that she had started her monthly—cramps feeling as though someone had her internals in a vice. Thankfully, they had been traveling together long enough that Naruto had long since learned to expect this sort of thing and wasn't really fazed at the sight. Glancing up at the entirely-too-smug looking woman across from her, Hinata smirked. There was good news, after all. The group had been together long enough for their cycles—or at least Hinata, Shizune, Anko, and Tsunade (if she still had them, and Hinata was unsure)—to sync up, with Tenten not far behind. Hinata knew hers would kick off the others, gaining her at least that small victory. And on the wobbly-side of things, her own cycle would be completely finished by this afternoon at the latest, while the others would be ongoing. Later in the day, Tsunade would take the time to pull her aside for another checkup, to see if there were any more surprises in store as, since receiving her fuzzy accouterments, Hinata's monthly cycles had gradually decreased in duration, while increasing in pain during the event—to the point Tsunade had to deaden the area with medical jutsu. The elder med-nin postulated that eventually, she would stabilize and the duration would get down to somewhere around a few hours for her body to mense and regenerate. In the meantime, she became something of a study project for those in the group doing medical training. This had notgone over well the first time, even if Hinata understood the need for it. She and Naruto were both something new, after all—just different enough that Tsunade only barely had any clue what their physiology was likely to do from one moment to the next.
"You've only delayed the inevitable," Hinata finally spoke, breaking the silence and causing Naruto beside her to jerk at both the surprise and sub-zero tone of voice.
Finally allowing her grin to show, Anko nodded in agreement. "But delayed it I have."
Quietly putting down his utensils, Naruto carefully stood and excused himself in an effort to clear the blast radius. Having been on the road with this group for the past several months, he knew what this phase of the moon meant for him where the females were concerned—that, and his newly enhanced sense of smell gave him warning well in advance, which only made him dread it that much more. Unfortunately, he could say he completely understood. After all, he'd had a stray female clone running around for well over a month who had had the misfortune of somehow notdispersing during her own monthly. The memory of it would haunt him for years to come. A voice from the table halted his retreat. "Naruto-kun?"
"Uh.. yeah?" he asked nervously, cursing the fact that he had been noticed.
"Sit down. I'm not going to bite your head off," Hinata sighed, rolling her eyes in exasperation. 'Men,' she mused, unknowingly echoed universally by every female at the table.
The Land of Snow, as the name would imply, was cold. Bitterly so, at the pace Naruto—or at least a clone thereof—forced himself to keep. Despite wearing gear crafted specifically for cold temperatures, the blond had to frequently stop and summon another clone of the original due to frostbite—fast travel via bastardized shunshin had its drawbacks apparently, and one of those was exposure to the elements. Precipitate such as rain, sleet, or snow mostly flowed around the technique, but it could do nothing for wind, temperature, and humidity. The thought had crossed his mind that he would likely have the same problem spreading groups of clones into Wind Country and spread across the collective conscious that was Naruto in his various cloned incarnations. There were at least a dozen of the blond currently working on a way to beat the problem at hand, but for the moment he was stuck with it. With another summon-and-switch, a blue-faced and shaking blond dispelled and his replacement took off. Clones sent up trees and then tossed for height by more clones had spotted the temperate zone that made up Yukie's Land of Spring as a patch of vibrant green on the horizon.
Having no idea where to look for the one-time runaway princess once he actually got there, the blond settled on coming to a stop at the most memorable landmark he'd spotted during their last trip through the area. After taking a moment to catch his breath and regain a little of the warmth lost in this last leg of his mad sprint up through Lightning and into Snow, Naruto opened a vial of blood from the original Naruto and summoned the rest of the small group that had decided to set up camp and wait until a clone got into position to perform the technique, to spare the rest having to deal with traveling through the harsh climate. As the smoke of the summoning cleared, the blond grinned and decided the awestruck look on Isaribi's face as she took in their surroundings for the first time was worth the frostbite.
"This is what I missed?" the girl managed to get out, only after several minutes of taking in the contrast in scenery. The group of four stood on the grassy shore of a crystal clear lake, surrounded by the chakra-powered mirrors the late Daimyo of Snow had constructed just before his death—the heart of paradise in the middle of an otherwise whited-out winter wonderland.
It was Shizune who brought the group out of their quiet appreciation of the scenery. "Come on, we have to find Koyuki-hime. Naruto-kun, would you mind making another pair of the two of us, to send into town with the others?"
"Eh, two sets?"
Shizune's smile was mischievous as she answered, "We have much to do and I want to surprise Tsunade-sama. Oh, and throw in a trio of Hinata-chan—I could use her help with a few things, and I'm sure she would love to see Spring again." What she left unsaid was that she knew for a fact that Hinata would appreciate a break from the others and some relative alone-time with Naruto, well away from Anko and the woman's efforts to make a nuisance of herself, particularly any time the blond and former Hyuuga-princess found themselves alone together. 'Using sleep-darts was just low. I'm honestly surprised at Hinata-chan's self-restraint. If it had been me Anko had interrupted, we would have come to blows by now.'
Hinata's grin upon finding herself suddenly in Spring with no Anko in sight was ear-to-ear. "Naruto-kun," she called quietly, producing an echo as her clones mimicked her. The trio paused long enough to take stock of each others' presence before sharing identical looks of mischief.
"Business first," Shizune interrupted, just as the trio had seemed to reach an agreement and sighted in one of the available blonds.
"But, but—!" the girls started, only to be brought short by an eye-roll from the eldest apprentice.
"No. It can wait." Seeing the petulant looks sent her way, she sighed before taking two of them by an arm and shoving one each towards a Naruto. "You two go with this group into town," she directed the pair before turning her attention to remaining copy. "And you come with us." So saying, she grabbed the duo of just Naruto and Hinata and began forcibly pushing them towards where she remembered the Daimyo's estate to be. Neither foxy-eared apprentice missed the young woman's murmured threats to put her younger counterparts on Tsunade-duty for the next month.
"So, what's with the notebook?" Naruto asked as he, Shizune, and Hinata walked out of yet another civilian general-goods store. Further up the road, he could make out Dane and Isaribi making their way into another of the few clothing stores in the village—apparently, the retired ninja was looking into expanding his business into the civilian side of things.
Shizune didn't bother to look up from the notebook in question as she answered, steering them towards another shop. "We're comparing notes."
"On...?" the boy lead, trying to peer over her shoulder only to be pushed gently away.
"Regional pricing," the brunette murmured, her attention obviously not entirely on the subject at hand. "It's an idea that's been nagging at me for a while now—something you said, actually. Hinata-chan, would you mind?"
Having an idea of what Shizune was asking, she asked, "Naruto-kun, how much would you say a pound of rice costs in Fire Country on average?"
The blond shrugged. "For me, inside Konoha? About three hundred Ryu. Outside Konoha, around eighty to a hundred and twenty depending on the time of year and the weather. Right now, I'd say about ninety five or so."
"Three fifty, here," Shizune answered, drawing a nod from Hinata.
The blond blinked and hummed in thought for a moment before nodding. "Right. They'd have to ship it in and it's out of season."
"Right," Hinata nodded. "So... how do you think they would feel about, say one hundred and twenty five now, and one-fifty when the market peaks?"
"They'd pay it, gladly," the blond answered, getting nods.
"And whoever could provide the rice at that cost would get to keep the remainder for themselves. Not to mention endearing themselves to the civilian populace..."
"Us?" he asked, getting more nods.
Flipping a page in her notebook, Shizune marked down another figure before looking up to regard the pair. "It would be more of a profit than that, actually, if we could get supplies from the source instead of second-or-third hand. However, I think the easiest thing to do for now to keep from stepping on too many toes all at once would be to deal with the guilds directly and buy in bulk—or, at the very least, through someone already known to them. Don't want them catching wind of what we're doing..." she murmured, biting her lip pensively before continuing. "From there, we could seal and move the goods where they needed to go the same day—or pay someone else to do it." Sighing quietly, the woman rubbed at her forehead briefly before starting off further down the street. "Unfortunately, this is too much for me to handle alone—even with clones. That's why I'm making a list, and it's why you're here. By the end of the week we should be able to start moving on the civilian side of things. If everything goes well with Yukie-chan, then we should be able to start moving on the ninja side sooner."
Taking a moment to think it over, Naruto asked, "What kind of things are we looking to move?"
"Everything," Shizune smiled. "All of Snow is dependent on imports for the majority of their fruits and vegetables and much of their other consumable goods. Rice, wheat, flour, sugar, pretty much any spice you care to name. And that's just necessities. On the other hand, they're fairly well known for their exports of pelts and meats from various animals that typically only range up this far. And of course there are the local plants and lichen that we haven't had much opportunity to study—an herbalist or chemist would have a field day if we could use Spring for a base of operations for development of new medicine. I don't believe it would be an exaggeration to say that with your technique, we could financially control the vast majority of the country within eight months to a year. If we were to apply the same strategy elsewhere, quickly and quietly enough, we could do the same with many of the other Elemental Nations. Wind and Water would likely be the easiest and should be among our first attempts at this."
"So, we're buying the map out from under everyone else?"
Hinata nodded as she pondered the implications of the eldest apprentice's plan. "Not the whole map, just the parts that matter most—in this case, the supply lines. Wars are won or lost on a nation's ability to out-spend their enemy and make sure their soldiers remain fed and equipped, preferably at the expense of the opposing force. Money, weapons, and food—cut off from any one of these, a nation loses the ability to wage war. It's been done before, but never on this scale—actually, previous failed attempts lead to the first and second great ninja wars. Well, indirectly. It's one of the more publicized excuses, but it was really just that—the excuse they needed to go to war on a large scale as opposed to sending the occasional assassination team. It's also why Suna was so eager to throw in with Orochimaru—they'd been slowly bled nearly dry by their Daimyo outsourcing labor to other villages."
"Think of it as a preemptive strike," Shizune suggested. "That little three-way tiff between Konoha, Suna, and Oto was just the tip of the ice berg. With Konoha weakened, the other villages will likely start causing trouble within the next five years or so, and it won't just be Konoha in the line of fire. Nowhere will be safe. Everyone, ninja and civilian alike, will be a target. By that time, we can have them so dependent upon our services that they would stave were we to cut them off."
"And we get rich in the process," Naruto deadpanned, drawing a pair of matching smiles from the two kunoichi.
"Richer," Hinata corrected. "Of course, that's only if things go well. If someone manages to figure out just what it is we're trying to accomplish before we've got everything in place, things will get ugly. The other villages will likely see it as a declaration of war. The best thing for us to do is to either keep moving and make sure no one village can be held accountable for our actions, or to find a village strong enough that no one would dare march on it."
"Which is where our other set of copies come in," Shizune supplied. Seeing the curious looks on the pair's faces, she elaborated. "We killed Snow's last Daimyo and put the current one in power. It helps things a bit that the last guy was a nut and had the leader of their hidden village executed so he could rule it himself—though how he managed that is beyond me, seeing as the man himself was barely jonin in skill and entirely too full of himself to have survived as long as he did... To say she owes us is an understatement." Turning to Naruto, she bit her lip before asking quietly, "I know it's not 'Hokage,' but how does Yukikage sound?"
Naruto blinked, attempting to process that. "What?"
"Just say 'yes,' Naruto-kun," Hinata murmured into one of his ears, a soft smile crossing her lips.
"But... we can't— there's no way," Naruto started, only to see both the other apprentices shake their heads.
Shizune cut the boy off, placing a finger on his lips to silence him. "Orochimaru built Oto up from the ground up from mostly missing-nin and orphans. Given a few years to secure those missing-nin's loyalty with money and a little security and to train up the orphans, he was able to use them as the bulk of his force to cripple Konoha—despite our serious advantage in numbers. Their ninja were, on average, far better-trained than ours at the lower ranks from what I've read of the reports—your own included. You do realize most of the enemies you faced simply trying to retrieve Sasuke were high-chuunin to low-jonin level in skill, backed with those cursed seals that brought them up to mid-jonin in strength—the exception being the kenjutsu specialist with the bone kekkai genkai. He was easily a solid jonin-level ninja. The only reason they lost was lack of experience, underestimating your retrieval team, and the one case of failing health to be honest. And it wasn't even a true loss, seeing as they accomplished their goal—that is, holding off your team long enough to get Sasuke to Orochimaru."
Shaking her head, the eldest apprentice continued. "The genin involved in the attack were typically around mid-chuunin level skill, the chuunin either low-jonin in skill... the odd part was that the jonin were so lacking in comparison. The only explanation Konoha had come up with before we left was that it was because they were mostly made up of those original missing-nin, most of whom never progressed past chuunin rank and likely didn't continue their training once they settled down. Then again, a village of lazy adult ninja doesn't make much sense, leaving me wondering if Orochimaru didn't keep most of his more useful assets on station in Oto in the event they were attacked as a target of opportunity. This kind of thing drives the people in the Intel sections nuts, because it typically leads to the type of recursive thinking that breeds paranoia and delusion in even sane people."
"So, following that example, if we can't find a great ninja village we'll just build our own," Hinata smiled.
Nodding, Shizune added, "This way we can make our own laws instead of having to work within a system already in place and designed to benefit a village council or a few wealthy businessmen, as opposed to the village as a whole. In fact, we can do away with the need for a council altogether and never have to worry about civilians and certain families trying to force their will on everyone else. We can take everything useful from Konoha, trim away the parts we don't need or that wind up being useless, and improve on things where we can."
Kazahana Koyuki, or Fujikaze Yukie depending on who one asked and the day of the week, was having a particularly bad week. Things had been so dull lately. Paperwork was piling up, filming for the Icha Icha movie had been delayed again, the ninja under her command were growing restless and she had absolutely no idea how to run a ninja village on top of running the rest of the country—her uncle had had all of her father's advisers assassinated, preferring not to have to deal with councils and cabinets, and while there were a great many men and women lined up to take whatever job she offered she honestly didn't trust a single one of them. She was a firm believer of the old adage that those who desire positions of power are the ones who should be kept furthest from them. Between the stress and the boredom, it was almost enough to drive one to drink—or back to drinking, should that person be attempting to quit. Some days, it made her wonder how Tsunade handled the job of being Hokage—until she remembered that the woman in question had pretty much hand-picked her favorites out of that village and took off when the village had their collective gazes turned the other way. On the sound of the familiar voice at just the right pitch to irritate her, she hesitantly lifted her mug of hot cocoa and sniffed if—wondering if someone had put something stronger than chocolate in it, out of sympathy for her plight. After all, there was no possible way...
The door to her office burst open, cutting her off mid-thought to admit an orange-and-black clad bundle of energy, followed by another pair of familiar faces. As the group stepped further into the office and the one she recognized as Tsunade's assistant Shizune closed the door, she took in the trio of hallucinations and blinked. "I have no idea what my secretary put in my cocoa, but I have far too much paperwork to deal with hallucinations right now. You'll have to make an appointment."
"You're not drunk or drugged, nee-chan," the blond rolled his eyes, plopping down in one of the seats in front of her desk.
"Don't call me that. And how are you sure you aren't just drug-induced figments of my imagination?" she asked, before motioning towards his head. "The last time I checked, neither you nor Hinata-san had an extra set of ears."
"It's a recent development, and a long story," Shizune sighed, taking a seat on the other side of Naruto from Hinata.
Looking over the desk, Hinata asked, "Busy week?"
Nodding, the ruler/actress turned her attention back to the blond. "You're really here?"
"Yep," the boy nodded, grinning.
"Thank the gods," the woman breathed. A moment later found her out of her seat and over the desk, sending papers scattering across the floor. A moment after that, the sound of a pair of bodies and a chair hitting the floor resounded through the room as she ploughed into the boy and sent them both sprawling to the ground. "You've come to rescue me again," the woman murmured from amongst the tangle of limbs and chair.
"It must have been a more trying week than she let on," Shizune mused, drawing a nod from Hinata.
Below the suddenly affectionate actress, Naruto rolled his eyes. "Quitting already, Hime-chan?"
"Yes. Anything. I quit. You can have it. Just get me out of here," she half groaned, half whined.
Having dealt with Tsunade for years and suffered through the woman's short stint as Hokage, Shizune could spot an opening a mile away and the woman currently using their favorite blond as a cuddle toy wasn't joking. Situations such as this needed to be handled with care, otherwise they would degenerate into a night of drunken debauchery and more of the same the next day. She decided to try the 'softly, softly' approach first. "How are things with your ninja forces going?"
Blowing out an irritated breath and getting a flinch from Naruto as it mostly fell over his whiskers, the actress-turned-ruler shrugged. "How should I know? I'm not a ninja. I don't know how to run a ninja village. All the jonin do is bitch that I need to do something, or make one of them leader so they can do something, but I don't trust any of them further than I could throw them."
The answer was muffled, but the eldest apprentice had little trouble making it out—years of practice dealing with Tsunade's occasional fits and tantrums helped. Shizune hummed, pretending to give the matter thought before quietly suggesting, "We could take it off of your hands for you."
From his position mostly underneath the older woman, Naruto found Yukie's smile to be nearly blinding as she pulled up enough to look him in the eye. "Congratulations on your promotion to Yukikage, Uzumaki-sama," the woman beamed, sealing the deal with a kiss to the boy's forehead.
Shizune rolled her eyes, tuning out Hinata's giggles as she deadpanned, "I was thinking more along the lines of Tsunade-shishou." Besides, she had wanted to be the one to say that eventually, damnit!
Yukie shrugged. "She can have it, then."
"Hey wait a minute, wasn't I just Yukiekage? Err, Yukikage," he quickly corrected, seeing more than one smirk at the slip of the tongue. "Shouldn't I get to choose my own successor? Not even five minutes on the job and I'm fired already."
"I'm your Daimyo, Yukiekage-sama. You have to follow my orders," the actress grinned, drawing a pout from the blond for her repetition of his slip. Somehow, he got the feeling she wouldn't be likely to let that go any time soon.
"I thought you quit," the blond argued.
Humming, Yukie brought a finger to her lips in mock thought before grinning. "Congratulations on your promotion to Daimyo, Uzumaki-sama."
"Here I thought you'd have to marry in," the eldest apprentice quipped. Seeing Yukie open her mouth to retort—or make an offer—Shizune cut her off. "All joking aside," Shizune started, straining not to laugh, only to be interrupted herself.
Rolling onto her back and fixing the brunette with an annoyed look, the actress rolled her eyes. "All joking aside, I was serious about the ninja village. You can have it. I've got no idea how to run one. If Naruto-kun can't have it, give it to Tsunade."
"She'll likely refuse," Hinata pointed out, drawing a nod from Naruto.
"Knowing Baa-chan, yeah. She'll probably pass it off to Ero-sannin," the boy grumbled, rolling to his feet and offering the actress a hand up, which she accepted.
"Jiraiya-sama will likely refuse as well," Shizune mused quietly. "Maybe..."
"You could run it," Yukie interrupted.
Shaking her head, Shizune smiled. "I appreciate the compliment, but no. I'm barely a special-jonin, despite being Tsunade-sama's apprentice. I haven't really had time to try for the exam for full jonin rank."
"So they can both have it. Alternate days or something. I don't care," the ruler huffed, looking around her office at the mess of paperwork she'd made. "You can work something out with them later. I have enough crap to deal with from the other Daimyos to have to try splitting my attention between dealing with that bunch of shriveled-dick whiners, the mask-wearing whiners claiming to be my jonin, and the prissy whiners who can't settle on a script. It doesn't help that, despite being too old and shriveled up to actually use their equipment for anything, they still eye me up like a piece of meat on display. Suddenly, all the Daimyo meetings are being held in or near Spring. It's driving me nuts."
"You're right," Shizune nodded agreement, cringing slightly at the actress-turned-Daimyo's description of her fellow lords of the various lands. "We can't really do much about the other Daimyos, unfortunately. ...Well, unless you want to contract out an assassination or three," she shrugged, her tone half in jest, though she did not fail to notice the way the woman perked up at the idea. "Which would be a bad idea," she hastily added, before Yukie could do just that. "In any case, we'll need access to your shinobi records. We need an accurate census of active-duty personelle, students, blueprints of the shinobi facilities..."
Naruto tuned the brunette out as she went on to list things they would need to get the shinobi sector under control. Glancing up at Yukie, he found her doing much the same. "She does this, occasionally. You just have to ignore her until she winds down and she'll end up repeating it all anyway later," Naruto stage-whispered, drawing laughs from Yukie and Hinata and a twitch of irritation from the eldest apprentice.
Throwing a glare at the blond and making a mental note to pencil him in for Tsunade-duty later—and possibly Yukie-duty, from the look of things—Shizune took a slow breath before letting it out in a quiet sigh. "Fine. We should probably have Tsunade-shishou and Jiraiya-sama here when we do this—and we may as well have the others on board too. Naruto-kun, would you do the honors?" She had wanted to have everything wrapped up and just waiting to surprise her master, but she had to admit that it was likely a bigger job than she had anticipated and the extra hands couldn't hurt. Hinata would just have to deal with Anko on her own terms.
"Uh, no," the blond hesitantly denied. Seeing the questioning looks from the females in the room, the boy threw them a nervous grin and scratched the back of his head out of habit. "See, I've been thinking since we started after Dane and Isaribi and we realized this is where they were headed. There's something I need to check on."
As it turned out, that something turned out to be easier to find than anyone had anticipated. The building itself had been locked down and guarded by several ninja at every access point, but with the Daimyo there, they were waved through and up to the office/control booth overlooking the main floor of the building. Looking out over the large hangar bay attached to the shinobi complex from the upper-level observation deck, Hinata and Shizune looked between Naruto and the dozen oblong shapes below currently being swarmed over by a group of clones. "They didn't make just one," Hinata murmured, drawing a nod from the boy.
"I figured they hadn't. It was too well made to be a first attempt," Naruto admitted.
"What are you going to do with them?" Koyuki asked quietly, echoing the thoughts of the two kunoichi.
Watching his clones scurry about below while the occasional update streamed in from a dispersed clone, Naruto grinned. "We're gonna need Dane. And Ero-sannin. And I need a pen and my original. And I really, really want the guys who designed these things to begin with."
On hearing the request for those individuals, Shizune blinked. "Naruto-kun, has anyone told you lately that you're brilliant?"
"Nope, but I like hearing it." He stiffened as a shiver ran from ears-to-tail on finding a pair of lips and teeth nibbling at one of his original ears.
"You're brilliant," Hinata murmured.
Hundreds of kilometers south of the Land of Snow, the original Shizune blinked before a small smile crossed her lips. 'Success!'
Noting the change in her first apprentice's demeanor, Tsunade eyed her suspiciously. "Is there something I should know about?"
"Yes," Shizune smiled, refusing to elaborate further.
"What do you have planned?"
"Planned, Tsunade-shishou?" Shizune asked, using the pig clasped in her arms to add to her innocent look.
The group as a whole, minus Shizune herself, snorted. "Not buying it," Tenten grinned. "That's the same look Hinata gets..." she trailed off, shooting a suspicious glance between elder and younger apprentice.
"The same look I get...?" Hinata asked, a small smile crossing her face and joining Shizune in the innocent act.
Temari rolled her eyes. "The same look you get when you try to get into blondie's pants," she deadpanned. A smirk crept across her face as she asked, "How's that working out for you, anyway?"
"Damn Anko," Hinata fumed quietly, earning a chortle from the woman in question.
"Thought so," the Suna kunoichi chuckled. "Even if it is the same look, I really doubt she's trying..." she trailed off, seeing the looks the others were sending her way. "Really? Another one?" She turned a look of irritation towards Hinata. "You've been recruiting," she accused.
The dark-haired girl smiled, but shook her head. "Naruto-kun just has that effect on people."
Temari rolled her eyed, asking, "Is there anyone here who isn't? I mean, even the gender-confused one out getting lunch for us with him has been sending looks his way."
"Haku's a guy," Tenten sighed, amending, "Not ruling out that he's gay."
Temari snorted. "You keep thinking that."
"Huh?" Tenten blinked, shooting a look at Hinata for confirmation. On the girl's smile, and Tsunade and Shizune studiously avoiding her gaze, she rolled her eyes. "Didn't we have this conversation last week?" Shrugging it off, she asked, "So, Shizune... Naruto-kun?"
The eldest apprentice studiously ignored the bun-haired girl. Beside her, Tsunade smirked. "She's had it bad for him since he and Jiraiya found us. I think it's only just set in that no one here cares about the age difference."
"You're one to speak," Shizune quietly rebutted, drawing a glare from her mentor.
"What was that? You're not too old for me to take over my knee," the Sannin threatened.
Shizune rolled her eyes, deciding to call the Sannin's bluff—the woman was terrible at gambling, and this would just be another example of it. "You haven't gotten laid in nearly twenty years. You would not protest."
"Yes I would," Tsunade denied. "It'd be too... weird."
"So, no one but me finds this situation weird?" Temari asked, interrupting the byplay.
"Nope," Hinata beamed. "That's just Naruto-kun."
Temari shook her head. "Yeah, but it's not just one or two of us—it's all of us, from what I can tell. Even Yuugao, and she hasn't been here all that long." The woman in question appeared to be paying rapt attention to their surroundings and ignoring the conversation, the moment several sets of eyes turned to her—entirely too nonchalant to be innocent. "Hell, even those from the other group are starting to eye him up."
Tenten nodded. "She has a point," she agreed slowly. "Every female with a pulse at least gives him a twice-over. Not to mention the gropers," she deadpanned. "Maybe it has something to do with the changes, pheromones or something?"
Hinata shook her head. "You're not listening. That's just Naruto-kun. It has always been that way—ever since we were children. For a short time, Naruto-kun was very popular—especially amongst the younger female population and most especially among those whose parents were not in Konoha at the time of the attack. At least, that is before they had an image to attach to the warnings from their parents and suddenly it became more popular to use his own nature against him to lure him into traps or otherwise betray his trust. That happened successfully two, maybe three times. And then he started 'getting lost' if someone who had supposedly wanted to be his friend invited him to go somewhere."
"Well," Tenten hummed. "I did think he was kind of cool, when we were in the exam. But at the time, I was more focused on passing..."
"But you noticed," Hinata said, drawing a nod from both Tenten and Temari. "He just draws people to him. Aside from myself, Ayame has known Naruto the longest. Why do you think she agreed to join Jiraiya's group? She hadn't had an honest date in over a year."
"Creepy little stalker," the Suna kunoichi murmured. There were sounds of agreement all around before Temari smirked. "So, if we're all in this together..." she trailed off, looking to Hinata.
The former Hyuuga smiled. "I told you before, I don't mind sharing."
"Right," Temari nodded. Chuckling quietly at the absurdity of the conversation, she asked, "So, what are the sleeping arrangements going to be?"
"Clones," Hinata, Shizune, and Anko answered as one—dispelling any notion Temari may have had that they weren't serious. Hinata continued, "But first, we have to do something about Anko."
The special-jonin snorted. "As if you could."
Shizune giggled. "I think that's between the two of you."
Hinata shook her head. "No, I'm pretty sure she's an equal-opportunity annoyance." The woman in question nodded, wearing an ear-to-ear shit-eating grin.
"You just want to be first," Yuugao—surprisingly—pointed out, getting a nod from Hinata.
"Yes," the pale-eyed girl agreed.
"I don't think any of us are really going to argue that," Shizune smiled. "So, how do we deal with Anko? Sleep agent in her food?"
"Tried that," Hinata denied, the special-jonin snorting quietly. "She just added salt and smiled. Pretty sure she's got a high tolerance to most poisons. I'm down to threatening to jyuuken her, but I don't think even the threat of never being able to achieve orgasm again would so much as phase her."
There was a collective wince of feminine sympathy. "Remind me never to piss you off. So, blow to the back of the head?" Tenten jokingly suggested.
After several minutes of suggestions, each more outlandish than the last, Tsunade finally rolled her eyes and suggested, "Just distract her." Seeing she had their attention, she continued. "Convince Yuugao to go after Anko. Or Hana. Or both."
Several feet away from the others, the ANBU operative made a quiet squeak and tried to blend in with the wall behind her without the benefit of chameleon armor. "Tsunade-sama," she murmured in irritation as beside her, Anko smirked.
"Are you sure—" Tenten started, only for Tsunade to snort.
"Yeah, I'm sure," the elder blonde grinned. "Those two have been at each other nearly every night since Yuugao joined up with us."
The ANBU in question sighed quietly before pulling out her mask and slipping it on, if only to hide the blush. "We weren't that loud," she quietly denied, silently contemplating her own revenge against the Sannin.
Temari nodded. "It could work, but who's to say she'd agree? She may side with Anko, just to be annoying."
"True," Tsunade allowed. "Or she could side with us, just to annoy Anko. Of course, there's always bribery."
"Bribery, huh?" Anko mused, shooting a glance at her sometimes lover. "If I'd known sooner..."
"Shut up," the masked woman all but growled.
"Subconsciously including yourself, Tsunade-shishou?" Shizune smirked up at her mentor, earning herself a glare and an attempted swat, which she danced away from.
Temari ignored the byplay between master and apprentice, again, and asked, "Bribe her with what?"
Tsunade rolled her eyes. "What else? The going currency of the realm seems to be blond and blue-eyed."
Conversation along those lines cut off as Naruto and Haku returned with lunch. On noticing the stares from the kunoichi of the room, the blond asked, "What'd I miss?"
Shooting a glance between the entirely-too-catty looking kunoichi and the blond, Haku smiled. "Nothing good, of that I am sure."
Seeing that her apprentice seemed to be in the mood to get under her skin and would continue to either refuse to answer or distract her away from the question, the eldest blonde rolled her eyes and surveyed the group as they settled down to eat lunch and then prepare to explore Wave today. They had gotten in late the previous night, detouring only to visit a pair of unmarked graves and pick up the sword belonging to Haku's former master. The Demon of the Bloody Mist's one-time apprentice had been mostly quiet since, having found the grave that once belonged to Zabuza sunken in and empty. Unfortunately, now that she had solid proof, Kabuto's intent for digging up the graves to begin with was clear to Tsunade—he had planned to turn over a pair of particularly powerful deceased ninja to his master, likely for Orochimaru to summon later with his thrice-damned stolen technique. At least, now that they had the Forbidden Scroll and it was fresh on her mind, Tsunade could likely convince Jiraiya to help her find a counter for the technique. Maybe they could even a way to improve on it, so it didn't require sacrificing a living individual and didn't simply bring back an advanced form of zombie...
Taking a deep breath, Tsunade ruthlessly squashed the thought before it could take root. "Okay," the woman announced, drawing the attention of the other kunoichi and the single male crammed into one of their three shared rooms. "We're getting a late start, but we've got a lot to do today. Shizune, I know you've had something in mind for a while now. Do you mind?"
Looking over a small notebook pulled from the folds of her top, the eldest apprentice hummed before starting to give out assignments. "Wave is already indebted to both Naruto-kun and our group as a whole. They are likely to be open to suggestion—especially if we can guarantee an increase in their profits. I would liketo turn this town into a major hub for relay of goods for this part of the continent."
"How were you planning on staffing this? An operation that big would require dozens of workers, each capable of using chakra—and even blondie couldn't keep it going forever," Temari pointed out.
Shizune grinned. "Inside the target villages, such as Suna, we'll have their own ninja operating the seals. Operation of the seals and movement of cargo could be written off as a D-ranked mission and given to genin teams for training. As for Wave... I may be on to something elsewhere. We'll know more by the end of the week. Tsunade-shishou, we need to find out who Wave's current leader is and find out whether he or she would be open to the idea of recruiting volunteers for ninja service from the adolescent and child population—and I would prefer to have any students actually trained elsewhere."
The Sannin blinked. "Annexing Wave to Jiraiya's mystery village that doesn't exist yet?"
"It exists," Anko interrupted, drawing a murmur of agreement from the Sannin after a moment of thought. "She wouldn't have said anything if it didn't. Question is, where is it and what do we have to work with?"
"Something like that," the apprentice admitted, nodding to Tsunade before regarding Anko. "The details still need to be worked out—we'll know more by the end of the week at the latest."
"Which means you're already there," Yuugao accused, earning a nod of agreement. She started to open her mouth to take that further, only to catch Anko's signal at the last minute. Shrugging, she smiled faintly. Who was she to begrudge the Sannin's eldest apprentice her fun—especially if it meant letting the young woman drive her master up a wall with curiosity?
"At any rate, we should probably divide into groups for this. Someone needs to look into finding us some warehouse space to lay down the seals and for temporary storage of goods—preferably somewhere out near the docks where it would be easiest to move the goods coming in off incoming ships, fishing trawlers and the like. Naruto-kun?" Seeing she had the boy's attention, she smiled. "I want prices—the same thing we did this morning." On the blond's nod, she went on to detail specific assignments to the rest of the group—eventually winding up sending at least two sets of everyone to gather data. Eventually, she found herself left with just Naruto, Hinata, and Tsunade for company. "So, let's go wave some political clout around and see who is running this place."
Finding what passed for a town hall in Wave was surprisingly difficult, as many of the buildings were unlabeled and looked much the same. The building in question was a simple one-story wood-and-brick affair situated on the north-east side of town, just outside of what passed for a shopping district. Upon entering, a young woman looked up from her desk and, upon sighting their headbands, smiled. "Go on up, she's been expecting you. Up the stairs, the office at the end of the hall."
"She?" Naruto and Hinata mouthed, exchanging a curious glance as Tsunade led the way up a flight of stairs and down a short hall.
Upon knocking on the door at the end, they were met with a woman's voice telling them "Come in."
As he made his way through the door and past Tsunade, taking a look around the office, Naruto blinked upon spotting the woman sitting at the desk there. "You look familiar," he accused. She was dressed somewhat better than the last time he remembered seeing her, and looked like she'd actually been eating since then, even if she'd apparently been neglecting sleep.
"It's good to see you again Naruto-kun, Tsunade-sama," the woman greeted, standing and moving around the desk to shake the Sannin's hand before pulling the blond boy into a hug.
Finally, it clicked for the boy. "Hey wait! I do recognize you! You're Inari's mom, Tsunami. Heh, I almost didn't 'cause you look so different with your hair up and.. uh... I'll shut up now," he grinned, trailing off in embarrassment at having forgotten her face.
Chuckling, Tsunami traded greetings with Hinata and Shizune before moving back around her desk and taking a seat. "So, what brings you to Wave?"
"Well..." Tsunade started, shooting a glance at her eldest apprentice before grinning. "How would you feel about bringing Wave back up as one of the largest centers for trade on this side of the continent?"
"It sounds nice. What's the catch?" Tsunami knew the group before her, so she knew Wave wouldn't simply be trading the yoke of one master for another in taking up their offer. That didn't mean they hadn't learned their lesson after the first time. There would be no more Gatou's—no more mercenaries, pirates, or slavers. "Wave has already been a target twice before, for exactly those reasons. What's to say we won't be again? The wall surrounding the village doesn't extend out into the harbor and our own security/police force is not yet strong enough to handle anything more than a handful of bandits."
"Should other dealings go well elsewhere, we will be able to offer you long-term ninja protection from multiple villages. If not, we should be able to at least put a team on station, to be rotated out for fresh ninja weekly," Tsunade offered, glancing to Shizune for confirmation of the last part and getting it in the form of a nod.
"Who, exactly, are we going to be opening lines of trade with?" the de-facto leader of Wave asked, her curiosity piqued.
"Suna," Naruto grinned.
Tsunami frowned. "Suna? Isn't that on the other end of the continent, in the desert?"
"Yup," the blond nodded. Seeing the older woman sigh and roll her eyes, the boy elaborated. "We can summon stuff between villages with seals. People bring things here, drop it off with us, and we send it where it needs to go."
"Naruto-kun is oversimplifying," Shizune added. "Things such as fish would still need to be prepared and packaged before sending, but it really would cut down on the time it takes to prepare and deliver goods to their destination. And unlike caravans or shipping, there would be no need to hire guards, no need pack things in expensive salt, and so on. Actually, we could use snow to pack any perishables that won't go bad if exposed to water..."
Tsunade blinked. Slowly, her head turned fully to face her eldest apprentice. "You didn't..."
The young woman in question blushed at her slip. "Surprise?"
"Summon us now!" Tsunade commanded, turning her attention to her favorite blond.
"Ahh... no?" the boy in question denied, on seeing head shakes from both Hinata and Shizune. A moment later, he found a pair of ridiculously strong hands around his neck, shaking him and sending his head flopping back and forth. "You'll never strangle us all!" the boy laughed, before dispersing in a poof!of chakra and smoke.
"I can try," the eldest blonde threatened to empty air where her most annoying apprentice had once been, returning to her seat and resisting the impulse to hunt down the boy's original. Now that she knew for sure what Shizune and the rest were up to, not being involved was driving her up a wall.
"Is this normal?" Tsunami asked of the only one there that seemed to be sane.
Hinata smiled. "Every day. Welcome to our world."
Sighing, the village leader resisted the impulse to rub her suddenly throbbing temples. "I know I'm going to regret this, but we're in. What do you need us to do?"
Her expression brightening, Shizune pulled out her notebook. "Well, to start with..."
Between two of her apprentices—the third having wisely not yet sent a clone back—Tsunade gave in to the impulse to rub at the headache behind her own eyes, applying medical jutsu to dull the pain. Things were going to get very complicated soon, and somehow, she knew Naruto was to blame.
"And that's how you set a triggered seal," Jiraiya explained to a Naruto as the pair plodded along through desert sand, some distance behind the combined group of Team Jiraiya and clones of Team Tsunade.
Naruto nodded before asking, "So, it's more of the same needing-to-know-the-wording thing," he summarized, getting a nod from the Sannin. "So if this is just a two part timer seal, how do I make it go off on impact? Or proximity?"
"Impact is easy," the Sannin shrugged, drawing the correct set of seals for the boy for an example. "Proximity is a little harder. Do you want it to go off when anyone comes near? What if you forget about it at the end of a battle? That leaves a lot of unexploded ordinance just laying around, waiting for our guys, their guys, civilians, animals or anything else to just wander by it and have their day ruined. That's not to mention if one of your own team isn't aware of where you placed it and wanders across it."
"Gotcha," the blond hummed, seeing where Jiraiya was going with that line of thought, all the while copying down the impact seal and integrating it with a partially finished seal array. Finished, he folded the small slip of paper before tying it through the ring of a kunai. "So, to keep it from hurting anyone but the enemy, you'd need to either somehow distinguish the enemy from yourselves... or set another conditional trigger. Remote detonation, or timed, right?"
"Exactly," Jiraiya agreed, watching as his apprentice worked. He raised an eyebrow as the boy casually sighted up range and flung the kunai in question at the Naruto clone currently taking with Hinata—or one of the many copies of the formerly Hyuuga girl currently among their group. Both foxy teens twitched, ears swiveling followed closely by heads and eyes as the kunai came within range—but having sensed no killing intent, and both being clones, neither made a move to evade. The kunai landed in the sand less than half a meter left of that Naruto and went off, just as the boy's eyes were focusing on it. Beside him, yet another Naruto sprung into existence, already mid-swing with a kunai of his own. The blond that had been there before had no chance to block or dodge the strike, taking the sharp and pointy bit of metal to the temple and dispersing. The freshly summoned clone sheathed his weapon and stepped back into stride with the Hinata clone there, resuming their conversation as though nothing had happened. "Naruto..." Jiraiya started, glancing down at the boy beside him—the boy who, admittedly, he couldn't tell whether he was the original or simply another clone. "What did you just do?"
"Clone summoning on an impact trigger," the boy shrugged. "Hey Ero-sannin, teach me the seals for something cool."
Having a good idea exactly what kind of jutsu the boy thought would be 'cool,' the Sannin shuddered momentarily. "Sure, in a bit," he agreed, somewhat distracted by the fact that Naruto had, in essence, just reinvented Hiraishin. Oh, it wasn't that simple, for sure—but a bastardized version that did close to the same thing could be just as irritating... And, well, he wouldn't be able to let it rest at simply being a bastardized version. So it was that the Sannin resolved to sit the blond down and crack open Minato's scrolls the first chance they got when the group made camp.
"Oh, and do you know how to store chakra with seals?" the boy asked, seemingly at random. Jiraiya knew it could be anything but.
"I'll teach you that too," the Sannin promised, already working up a list of techniques that would either require no chakra control to cast or could be cast with written seals. The thought of being able to drop kunai into clusters of enemies that didn't simply explode, but rather cast combinations of techniques—fire and wind, for instance—over wide areas, powered not by whatever a ninja could shove into the seals in the heat of battle, but rather charged up over a longer period of time was very appealing. Once again he was left to wonder why ninja who, despite having and using all the separate elements on a regular basis, never thought of combining them. In fact—the Sannin's train of thought was both cut off and brought to life as Naruto flung another tagged kunai at the same group of clones. This time, when it landed, they simply disappeared. "Did you just...?"
"Heh," the boy grinned. "Maybe. So, what canyou do with live enemy ninja?"
"That was a storage seal, wasn't it?" the Sannin asked, just for clarification. Getting a nod, he grinned as the pair came across the kunai. Picking it up, he triggered the seal on the tag to release what the seal had been holding—in this case, a pair of clones—and watched as a pair of Naruto and Hinata tumbled out onto the sand at his feet. "Nice work, brat."
The Naruto pulling himself up and dusting sand out of his clothes shot a glare at his seal-happy counterpart. "Oi! Don't do that again!"
"Eh?" asked the original—or at least, the one who had been throwing kunai.
The second blond rolled his eyes. "It was all black. No sound, no light, no nothing. We couldn't breathe, but we didn't need to. Hell, if I hadn't been holding onto Hinata-chan's hand at the time, I wouldn't even have known she was there." Seeing the other clone's look of skepticism, he shrugged. "See for yourself." So saying, the clone dispersed.
"Oh, wow, that sucks," the Naruto with Jiraiya agreed, quickly creating another copy of himself to replace the one that had popped. Hinata creating and dispersing a clone in that instant didn't so much a draw a raised eyebrow, as the boy knew she'd be spreading the same memory he'd just had across all of her own clones. What he did not know, and would not until much later, was that the girl in question had sent along a command with the memory and some time that night, one of her would approach Tenten and they would be having a discussion...
"This is why we don't usually store high-value targets in scrolls," Jiraiya clarified for the small group. Seeing as he had their attention, he continued. "It's great for keeping someone in stasis if you want to transport them securely and discretely, but eventually they break. Sensory deprivation is actually a fairly common interrogation technique, though it's usually genjutsu induced. Either way, it achieves the same effect. So, yes," he turned his attention fully on the Naruto that had created the seal. "It's useful. If you think you can use it and get it to work in a battle, do it. But don't use it on our own people—even for a prank." Even he had to admit, the thought of being stuck in one of those things for any prolonged period of time was unnerving.
"It's too bad you can hear it coming," Hinata pointed out, getting a nod from Jiraiya.
After a moment, Naruto slowly nodded. "The paper fluttering is kind of a giveaway. What if we just carved the seals directly onto the kunai? Or put them into one of those arrays that's supposed to shrink down to fit onto something?"
"That would work," Jiraiya agreed, only to add, "up until the first time an enemy comes back and collects one of the ones that have already gone off. That's why we usually use paper seals—they're easier to destroy and even if they don't go off, rain will smudge them into illegibility."
Naruto shrugged. "So, we add timers to all of them. You throw it, it hits and does what it's supposed to, then a few seconds later it either explodes into sharp little bits of steel or... summons itself back to your pouch. Or somewhere else, if it's one of the sealing ones."
The Sannin nodded. "That could work, but if the ones meant to be throwing jutsu around go off, then just send themselves back to your pouch, they're basically just regular kunai with the same problem as before again."
"So we take it a step further," Hinata grinned. Seeing she had their attention, she elaborated. "Mark each projectile with at least," here, she paused to count, "six sets of seals—two for chakra storage, one for summoning or sending, one for whatever it is you want that type or ordinance to do, one for the first conditional such as impact, and one for a timer. Capture-type projectiles would be set to go off on impact and store anyone within their range, then a second later send themselves somewhere convenient out of the way of battle. When they get there, you could have anotherseal array set to send a fresh capture-type projectile back to your pouch to replace the one you used." Seeing the pair nodding, she continued. "Along the same lines would be ordinance projectiles—kunai, shuriken, senbon or whatever you prefer that set off area-type jutsu on impact. That's not even counting adding a seal layer for shuriken kage bunshin, to turn a single projectile into a rain of steel—even if it can't duplicate the chakra stored in the seals, it would be good for both blanketing an area with fire and confusing the enemy as to which one is the truly dangerous one. And if we're going that far, we might as well add a seal for regular bunshin, and we'll have a mixed rain of deadly and illusory weapons so they can't even tell which ones are real without wasting chakra to disperse or deflect the lot of them. Combine it with a storage seal full of water and a seal to use kirigakure no jutsu and you've got an instant fog bank, which you could turn poisonous with the right medical jutsu. Enough humidity in the air, and a strong enough electrical jutsu could take out anyone nearby. If you can come up with some kind of seal to increase the pull of gravity, then once they're above their target area they can't really be deflected with wind jutsu and someone has to risk throwing out a fire technique to try to incinerate them. Then, once they've spent the chakra in their primary chakra-storage seals, the second conditional trigger would go off..." Hinata paused. "Could you set them to send themselves off once they're out of chakra, instead of on a timer?"
"It's a little harder, but doable," Jiraiya agreed.
"Right. So we do that. When they're out of chakra, like the capture-types, they could go to a seal array off of the battle field... where they would be recharged, from a larger chakra storage seal."
Both Sannin and apprentice blinked. "Holy..."
"Shit," the Sannin finished.
Hinata's grin was ear-to-ear. "Naruto-kun could feed it daily and not notice the expenditure. The spent weapons could be sent there, recharge, and return to our weapons pouches ready for reuse and we'd have that much more chakra to spend on other things."
"It'd never work," Jiraiya tried to deny. "The enemy would eventually wise up and either not cluster up or would spam kawarimi every time the wind blowed—not that driving them mad with paranoia is a bad thing—or the seals would all run dry at once, or someone would figure out how to disrupt localized jutsu, and if you throw enough you'd eventually have a few left over..."
"Add another chakra storage seal tied to a conditional trigger, set to explode violentlyshould any enemy... not bearing a matching seal pick it up, or even so much as come within a meter of it?" she suggested.
"Maybe," the Sannin allowed...
"Oh!" Naruto started, before they realized it had been both of them there. Trading a quick look between themselves, it was decided the more recently summoned Naruto would go. "What about a seal to check to see if the other seals, including itself, are still intact, and then if they aren't, boom? Or if they come into contact with foreign chakra, or if they go too long without contact with our chakra, or if they don't move for more than a minute, of if they're touched by anything other than cloth or flesh..."
"Ok, ok!" Jiraiya laughed, waving the blond down. "I think that's paranoid enough even for me. Do it."
"We're going to need something a bit more complex than summoning and storage," the older Naruto began. "We'll need jutsu from at least wind, fire, and lightning since those're the easiest to feed. And we'll need the charing array, and somewhere secure to put it. And we'll need that seal to store chakra. And..." Naruto blinked, remembering a project he'd been working on well before the incident with Akatsuki. He had been trying, without the aid of seals, to create a chakra-based shield to turn away projectiles and potentially shield from hand-to-hand impacts. It had worked, but it ate chakra on a level that no one but Naruto would have been comfortable with—he had even seen something like it put into action in the Land of Snow, with technology. But with a chakra storage seal, that chakra cost could be mitigated. With a conditional seal, set only to trigger the shield if an enemy projectile came within a few inches of the user, it would automate the process and further cut back on chakra expenditure. With some work, he could probably narrow it down further so that the chakra shield only deployed over the area being struck as opposed to across the whole body. And, unlike the technique's technological cousin, seals wouldn't short when exposed to electrical-based jutsu. The only downside he could see would be the user potentially coming to rely too much on that seal array... so they would have to train both with and without it, so their reflexes would constantly be focused towards dodging as opposed to letting the shield do the work. The bigger problem, the blond soon realized, was that this was becoming far too many seals to remember to charge on a daily basis—which was ok, since it tied in well with another idea he'd been tinkering with: chakra summoning and sharing.
"I'm going to need to figure out how to link chakra storage seals." Seeing the Sannin's confused expression, the blond rolled his eyes and gave a grunt of annoyance before he dispersed.
"Oi! Baachan!" a Naruto-clone just out of normal earshot yelled, drawing Tsunade's attention and glare.
"What is it, brat?" she asked, refraining from swatting him only because he was outside convenient swatting range.
"Teach me how to make that seal," he demanded, pointing at the one on her forehead.
Tsunade blinked, and blinked again. "Why? You don't really need it..."
Seeing that he hadn't immediately been denied, Naruto grinned. "I don't, but you do. And so does Shizune-chan, and Hinata-chan, and everyone else. That, and I'm working on something that could use parts of it."
"No. And explain," Tsunade demanded.
"Why not?" the boy asked, annoyed.
Tsunade smirked. "Consider it... a clan technique."
"Then..." Naruto began, pausing as he realized he had no counter-argument. ...Before starting again, as he came upon the most obvious answer. "Then we'll make our own clan!"
Tsunade snorted. "Is that so?"
"Sure, why not?" the boy asked, his attention focused on the taller blonde and so not noticing the looks traded between the other kunoichi of the group. Those that had been there saw that this was starting to echo a conversation earlier in the day in Wave, while those that had not could easily see where it was going.
To those kunoichi's collective shock, Tsunade shrugged. "I'll consider it."
Annoyed, Naruto crossed his arms and shot her a glare. "Fine. But don't think too long."
"So what'd you need it for anyway, brat?" Anko asked, more used to the blond's occasional tangents than most, seeing as she had been among the group that had been with him the longest and she tended to do the same thing on occasion.
Naruto grinned, arms uncrossing and one going to scratch at the back of his head. "Linked chakra sharing seals powering baa-chan's medical seal and a small seal array to do other stuff, all pulling from my chakra and storing it up over time and triggered in an emergency, or when somebody's chakra runs dry, or when you want to try something big..." The blond trailed off with a shrug. After all, it would take a while to go into the list of seals he'd want to add to the array, and the list in question would likely keep growing as needs arose—seals to automatically summon/send the bearer to a safe house if they were seriously injured beyond what the medical seal could take care of, the chakra shield seal, and so on.
There was a collective blink as the assembled kunoichi digested that before Hana, coming to the same conclusion as the others first, suddenly shouted, "I'm in!"
"Me too," Anko agreed, which was echoed by every female present.
Tsunade hummed, her expression pensive but inside, she was grinning like a loon. "You'll need to test it before putting it into practice..." she started, getting a nod from Naruto.
"We've already got something," he agreed, gesturing between himself, Hinata, and Jiraiya. "I think you'll liiiike it," he singsonged.
"Would you mind sharing, Naruto-kun?" Kurenai asked, curious to see just where this was going, as Jiraiya and another Hinata rejoined the group from where the Sannin had been trying to teach the blond without the distraction the others inevitably provided.
"Well, you see, it's like this..." Naruto grinned, flicking a kunai out into the sand some meters away, where another Naruto came into being and waved to the group before picking up the kunai and dispersing.
"Sometimes... you scare me."
Beside the semi-retired ninja-turned-tailor, the Toad Sannin nodded. "I'm beginning to agree."
Naruto rolled his eyes. "Can you do it or not?"
"Oh, it can be done. At least on my end. And that's the frightening part," Jiraiya admitted.
Nodding, Dane agreed. "It'd take a while... or a team of clones helping out."
"Which we have," Naruto insisted, his tone urging them to make a decision.
"Doable," the tailor shrugged. "What's the altitude limit on these things?"
It was Naruto's turn to shrug. "Not a clue. The local ninja are still looking for the guys that designed and built them. We've got pilot crew and maintenance crew, but no one really knows what they can really do. And besides, I've got some ideas—"
Jiraiya groaned. "What now?"
Chuckling, the blond scratched the back of his head in embarrassment. "Well, the one they sent after us was kinda slow. And noisy, up close—enough that most people would be able to pick it up from the ground if they were flying over Konoha. So..."
"So in addition to near invisibility, you want silence," Dane surmised.
"Seals to quiet the engines?" Jiraiya suggested, drawing a grin and a shake of the head from Naruto.
"Why bother with engines at all?" Seeing the raised eyebrows, he elaborated. "They're loud, they put out exhaust which could be tracked, heat—again, trackable—and you have to waste space and weight on fuel. What these guys do understand of them is there's a definite weight limit to how much they can carry. So, cut out fuel for the engines, and the engines themselves, and you've gotten rid of half the thing's weight. And again, the engines were slow. So, can we use jutsu?"
"That's a lotof chakra," Jiraiya protested. "And it's shaped all wrong for speed anyway."
"So we change the shape," Naruto shrugged.
"More chakra," Jiraiya pointed out.
"Not much," the blond argued. "See, the guys we fought against here had these suit-things. They were kinda neat, actually. The only problem with them was they really, really didn't like my sword. Anyway... they had chakra shields, chakra storage, pretty sure the suits themselves were chakra-strengthened light armor, but the best thing of all was they could fly. They had these little pop-out wings on the back that used chakra to fly. Except, they weren't so much real wings as some kinda tubes with some stuff stretched between them—kind of like a bat's wing. So, when they weren't needed they stayed flat against the back of the armor and you couldn't tell they were there, but as soon as they powered them up, the things stretched out..."
Both the older ninja were nodding. It was Dane who asked, "So, one setting for the slow, oblong shape..."
"For sitting still over an area," Naruto supplied.
"Reconnaissance," Jiraiya supplied. "Mount cameras on the thing and you can have a detailed map of someone's village while you sit pretty over their heads, invisible and silent—hell, from range if you use a telescoping lens. Then, when it's time to move..."
"The pole-things shift the whole upper structure into something more aerodynamic," Naruto grinned. Seeing the suspicious looks from the older ninja, he rolled his eyes. "You're talking to the guy who can henge into a bird any time he feels like it. I did some reading. I'm allowed to know big words, damnit!"
Shaking his head, Jiraiya continued. "So, you go from blimp to flying wing. It'd be a bitch to get the shape right..."
"That's what we need the sciency guys for!" Naruto gestured out towards the bottom of the hangar and the second office, presumably where the people in question had set up shop.
"You've still got the problem of powering it," Jiraiya pointed out. "How much does that cloth eat?"
Dane shrugged. "Over a small area, not much. You wouldn't really notice it. Over that large an area? You'd notice, alright. You would need a constant supply from at least a jonin. Per hour, to keep chakra exhaustion from setting in—and that's just a guess."
"And you can't provide that much, on top of everything else, and still having enough to fight," the Sannin added before Naruto could claim that that was nothing for him.
Looking annoyed, the blond huffed, "So get it from somewhere else."
"It's not like there's some magical, untapped well of chakra just sitting around unused, brat," Dane pointed out.
"Actually," Jiraiya started, only to have Naruto finish for him.
"There is," the blond murmured.
The Sannin blinked, even as the tailor snorted. "Hell, if there is, I'd like some of that."
"How do you know about natural chakra?" the Sannin asked of his student, causing the retired ninja's mouth to snap shut.
"Eh? What's that?" Naruto asked, before shaking his head. "I was thinking more along the lines of the same way non-ninja villages get electricity."
"An electric motor is still a motor," the Sannin put in.
"I know that, jackass!" Naruto attempted to swat the Sannin, only to have to dodge a retaliatory blow himself. "Wind jutsu for making it move! Anyway, they burn stuff, or they use rivers and dams, or they use solar power."
"Photovoltaic cells are ridiculously rare, and expensive, and have to be summoned because sure as hell no one in these parts knows how to make them," Jiraiya again took it upon himself to rain on the boy's parade.
Naruto's reply brought the Sannin up short. "Seals." Jiraiya blinked. "And we've got the perfect place to put them, if we can figure out how—because it's not like they're doing much with all that sand just sitting around in the Land of Wind. We could even set them to self-destruct the same way the kunai will, if you're paranoid. Once I've got the chakra-summoning seal figured out, I'd just need somewhere to point it."
Jiraiya shook his head. "What will you put the seals on? How will you hide it? How will they cover enough of an area to be effective?"
"More seals!" the boy all but growled, as the Sannin continued to poke holes in his idea. "Put them on something—another kunai for all I care. Bury the damn thing out in the desert—" Seeing Jiraiya about to open his mouth, the blond forged ahead. "Use the goddamn sand! Turn the whole freaking desert into a solar battery with a single seal! It's a large, mostly-unbroken expanse of sand, so a single seal set to go 'hey look, let's pretend all this sand is actually part of the seal' would work. It wouldn't pull enough power over a small enough area for a chakra sensor to notice. Put out multiple sealed kunai as relay points or something to make sure everywhere is covered. Send the power to multiple storage seals as either electricity or chakra. Use it to power this village. Use it to sell power to Suna and undercut whoever they're buying from now. Hell, bury one out in the snow and turn that into the same thing!" Panting and more than a little irritated at his sensei, the blond turned on his heel and marched out of the office. ...Or would have, had the door knob not stuck. "Ah, damnit!" the boy groaned, smashing his head into the door frame and poof!ing out of existence.
"You did that on purpose," the tailor accused, a grin on his face.
Beside him, Jiraiya's smile was sly. "Sometimes, the brat thinks best when he's fighting. Doesn't matter if it's with his fists or with words, a fight's a fight for him. He gets it honestly—his mom and dad were both the same way."
Nodding, the retired ninja asked, after a moment of thought, "So, you think it'll work?"
"Oh yes," Jiraiya nodded. "It's goddamn brilliant, really. What the brat didn't consider is that it could be used to turn a large area into a very large jutsu array—a field full of rape to anyone we don't like. Come on, let's go find a Naruto and convince him to summon up a lizard. We're going to need a lot of that stuff. After that, let's go see what this place has to offer in the way of bars."
"Agreed. I can see why your predecessor supposedly drank all the time—the kid can drive you to it."
Jiraiya snorted. "You think this is bad? He used to be the village prankster. When he was still alive, he nearly drove Sarutobi-sensei up a wall—and that man had the patience of a saint." Unfortunately for Naruto, most of Snow/Spring would be aware of his early exploits come morning, thanks to the local drunks and gossips—rumor and gossip being the only things faster than light, or so it's been said.
It was dark when a slightly steaming, partially towel-clad Hinata made her way up the stairs of the inn they were staying at and back to her room. "Naruto-kun?" Hinata asked, poking her head into the room she shared with the blond. The boy in question looked up from where he'd sat at the table, hunched over what looked to be a pair of gloves. "What are you working on?"
"Huh? Oh, this?" he asked, picking one up and waving it at her. Getting a nod, he grinned. "Well, my chakra control is still crap—will be for a while. So, I'm making a crutch."
"A crutch?" she asked, stepping closer to examine the items in question. A closer look revealed the boy had turned a thin pair of fingered gloves inside out and was sewing seals into the palm, with trailing connections up the individual fingers.
"Mhmm. Ero-Sannin showed me how to write a few elemental jutsu for the kunai seals. We probably won't be using anything but fire, lightning, and wind but I had him show me one for earth and water too. Since it's written down, it's easy to see what part does what." Pointing towards a set of five strips of paper, he grinned and named each of them off by element.
Hinata frowned as she took in the written seals and what her favorite blond was actually sewing into his gloves. Parts of it, she recognized. Other parts, she could see were part of each elemental jutsu type. "You're not putting in the whole technique?"
"Nunuh," the blond grinned. "That's the best part. I did a sort-of dry run with written seals," here, he held up his hands, which despite being clean still had traces of ink on the palms and fingers. "They'll work with the whole seal for that jutsu, sure, but then it only does that jutsu. So... I just did everything up to the part of the array that shapes it—elemental manipulation and, in the case of water and earth, material gathering—then I do the shaping myself. And since I'm just going for 'throw fire that way' as opposed to 'make a huge fire dragon that runs all over the place' it's actually easier than it sounds."
"...I want a pair," the girl admitted, drawing a grin from the blond.
"Sure," he nodded. "I even got something like a fire rasengan working before it blew up in my face," he admitted. "Well, a clone's face." The boy shrugged. "Ero-Sannin nearly shit bricks." Hearing nothing from the girl, he turned his eyes back towards her. "Hinata-chan, you ok?"
"Just... fine, Naruto-kun," she smiled. 'And once again, Naruto-kun achieves the seemingly-impossible on a whim. I've seen it so many times before, but it never fails to surprise me.'
"So, you think the others will want a set?" the boy asked.
After a moment of thought, Hinata hummed and asked, "Will they interfere with regular jutsu?"
Naruto shook his head. "Nah. They would, if it were just the elemental seals and activation seals, but I'm putting in another seal so they only work after I've done something first. Not sure what yet. Maybe touch a spot on them, but that'd be too obvious—as would blood-based activation. Maybe touch fingertips to certain parts of the palm in a certain order? It'd look like you're just making a fist or cracking your knuckles..." The boy shrugged. "So, what'd you come up for?"
"Oh!" Hinata blinked, suddenly reminded why she'd come up in the first place. "Bath time?"
"Ehh, I forgot," the blond grinned. "Sorry, I got busy. Be back in a few!" he promised, putting away his sewing kit and leaving the gloves where they lay for later. Gathering up a towel and a change of clothes, he headed downstairs for the men's side of the hot spring. After the usual lather, rinse, repeat ritual in the showers the blond settled into an isolated part of the spring, mostly out of view of the three other older patrons who had apparently decided to soak before bed. Yawning, he closed his eyes and found his mind turning back to when the group had their own private bath and didn't have to share with random strangers—most especially, with other men. Stares from females in the bath was fairly normal for the boy. From men? Not so much, and somewhat disturbing.
It was only a short time later that Naruto had nearly drifted off, almost nose-deep, when a disturbance from the other side of the bath drew his attention. "Oi! Nice legs," one of the men who'd been there before him shouted towards the door. Naruto tuned them out, at least until the water near him was disturbed. Cracking open an eye, he found a familiar face heading his way.
"Nice towel," the blond grinned as Haku settled nearby.
Answering the unspoken question, the ninja pointed chestward. "I dislike the scars."
"Ahh," Naruto nodded. Medical jutsu could do a lot—it could even hide scarring, to an extent, but they would never completely vanish. "No one's really going to care, you know?"
"I do," came the immediate response.
"Able to use chakra yet?" the boy asked, drawing a nod from his companion.
"A little. Not enough to make mirrors, unfortunately," the missing-nin's apprentice admitted. "And after a while, it starts to burn. Tsunade-sama says it may always do that, even if I regain most of what I've lost."
"Because it's not regeneration," the blond hummed, getting a nod. "Medical jutsu sucks sometimes, when you start hitting the limits."
Water sloshing nearby drew the pair's attention out of their discussion as one of the trio of older patrons made his way over. Naruto flinched as the man drew near, for two reasons—firstly, he absolutely reeked of sake, and secondly, he had come sans-towel. "So," he started, amazingly not slurring. "Me and my buddies got a bed. Bet. Got a bet," he corrected with a giggle at his own slip.
"I'll just bet," Naruto murmured, rolling his eyes and earning an amused chuckle from the ninja beside him.
"Shut your yap, brat."
"Oi, do you know who the hell I am?" Seeing the look of confusion on the man's face, Naruto asked, "You're from out of town, aren't you?" Getting a nod, he asked, "You go through the square today?" Another nod. "You saw the fountain, right? The big one, with the five ninja and the bridge builder?"
"What's your point?"
"Haven't got one."
Shrugging off the blond irritant, the drunkard returned his attention to the boy's brown-haired companion. "Anywho—me and the boy's got a bet goin'." Seeing the ninja raise an eyebrow in question and motion for him to get on with it, he grinned and asked, "Sure you're not a woman, sneaking in here to bathe with your boyfriend? Cause I can smell a woman. Even a little one. Even a little, flat-chested one actin' like a boy."
Eyes slowly dropping from where they'd met the drunkard's, Haku did a quick up-and-down to take in his form before asking, "Are you sure youaren't a woman?"
As the older man flushed in anger and embarrassment, his friends across the bath laughing hard enough to be heard on the women's side, Naruto grinned. "Friend, I think you should take a hint and go." Seeing he'd startled the drunk out of his anger momentarily, Naruto gestured around them. "Look around. I know you've been drinking and it's pretty hard to think, so I'll help. See the water around us—how it isn't steaming any more? Notice how it got colder the longer you stayed here and flapped your gums?"
Forgetting his anger momentarily, the drunkard nodded. "Now that you mention it... heater break?"
"Not likely," the blond shook his head, pointing back towards the man's friends where, less than a meter away, the water was still letting off steam.
"What's your point?" the older man asked, turning his attention back to the blond.
"I don't have one. My friend here does, though," Naruto grinned, even as the jagged tip of a length of ice rose from the water, coming to a stop roughly level with the older man's family jewels.
"Naruto-kun, I am not sure I can hit a target that small from this distance," Haku admitted, deadpan and loud enough to be heard clearly across the bath, inciting another round of laughter at the drunken traveler's expense.
"Cute. You win, little girl," the drunkard smirked, turning away. He had gotten mid-way into his second step before the water below his groin suddenly rose up to splash it and then froze solid.
As the older man's friends made their way over to help drag their comrade away, Naruto grinned. "This is why I hate public baths. And he totally deserved that."
"Agreed," the ninja beside him murmured, keeping an eye on the fleeing trio as they vacated the room.
Grin going just a little wider, Naruto pointed out, "It's a valid question though. Which one are you?"
Eyes rolled as the brunette answered, "I am a boy."
After a moment, Naruto chuckled and countered, "You're also a liar and a cross-dresser."
"True on both counts," Haku admitted with a small smile.
Seeing he wasn't going to get a definitive answer, Naruto rolled his eyes. "Well, I'm starting to get all pruny and you made the water cold, so I'm getting out."
"Alright," Haku agreed, that smile widening just a little.
Naruto blinked. "Turn around."
"Why should I?"
"Because you mightbe a girl," the boy accused. He was annoyed to see the ninja beside him shrug. "Damnit, fine," he grumbled, using his hands to cover himself as he shuffled towards the edge of the bath on his knees.
"Cheater," Haku accused.
"Damn right I am," the blond agreed, hopping out and making a dash for his towel. Tying it around his waist, the blond grinned and turned his attention back towards the bath, where the missing-nin's apprentice was just climbing out. "Ha!"
"Ha? Ha," the ninja in question countered, excess moisture collecting and solidifying into a senbon, which flew with deadly accuracy and pieced the blond's towel—undoing the knot and sending the whole thing to the floor, leaving the boy to scramble to decide whether to cover himself or grab the towel, and slip on the wet floor in the process.
Heaving a sigh from his position on the floor, Naruto glared up at the supremely amused-looking ninja above him. "I give up. You win." Grabbing his towel, he spared a glance at the distracted ninja and smirked, before sending a foot shooting out to snag the opposing ninja's own towel between a pair of toes and yank. "Ha! I... win?" the boy hesitated, taking in the blushing ninja before him.
"You win, Naruto-kun," Haku murmured, snagging the boy's towel out of his hands and retreating.
After a moment, Naruto shook off his stupor enough to call, "That's just not fair!" His only answer was a laugh from the retreating form at the door, with a suddenly decidedly feminine sway of the hips.
"Not enough for mirrors," Haku murmured, patting the towel down. "But enough for genjutsu."
Several minutes later, Hinata glanced up from the scroll she'd been reading as a red-faced Naruto made his way into their room and closed the door behind him, making sure to lock it to keep a certain irritating special-jonin out. As the lock on the sliding door clicked home, the seal penned onto the metal of the lock made contact with the matching part inside the door frame. Circuit complete, the seal armed itself and waited. The first person to touch the metal of the lock from the outside would be in for a nasty, two hundred and twenty volt surprise. "Are you alright, Naruto-kun?" Hinata asked, eying her favorite blond with concern—she knew for a fact that he only ever blushed like that around... "Who was it?" she sighed.
"Haku. She cheated," the boy answered. Seeing Hinata's look of curiosity, he elaborated. "Pretty sure he used a genjutsu."
"To what effect?" the girl asked. Being one of only three of their number to know the ninja in question's true gender, she knew this was bound to be amusing.
"You know how only perverts will detail a doll thatfar?" he asked, getting a nod from the girl. "Yeah, well, she cheated. It was like a doll. Flat. Nothing there. At all."
"And yet, that's twice just now you've accused himof being a girl," Hinata pointed out. "Are you sure she isn't neuter?"
Naruto rolled his eyes. "It was a good joke," the boy admitted. "And entirely worth it, since that one guy's going to have frostbite on his dick." He grinned at the girl's snort of laughter and sudden covering her face in embarrassment. Spotting a glass of water sitting on the table beside his gloves, he downed it before sliding into the bed beside the still-giggling girl. "Problem is, I can tell she's a girl the same way I know you're a girl. Or Shizune, or anyone else."
"Oh," Hinata murmured, "How so?"
The boy tapped his nose and grinned. "I can—" He trailed off and blinked, smacking his lips. "Mah tongth's numb..."
Sliding out of bed, Hinata made her way over to the empty glass of water on the table. Sniffing it carefully, she sighed and put it back. "Anko, again," she growled, sliding back into bed and noticing Naruto's eyes were losing focus. "So, should I tell Haku it's alright to join us in the bath now?"
Naruto grinned. "Nah," he started, then frowned. Carefully, he continued, "It'll drive Tenten nuts, not knowing."
"One of these days, one of them is going to corner you," Hinata warned. "And then you'll be either slapped silly or worse." Hearing a soft snore beside her ear, the former Hyuuga shook her head as her warning fell on deaf ears. "Anko, I knowyou're listening." There came a confirmation tap, from somewhere in the vicinity of the vent. "What will it take to convince you to stop poisoning Naruto-kun long enough for us to actually consummate things?" Hinata blinked at the answer. "I'm sorry, I must have misheard that. Come again?"
The door to the room quietly slid open as the kunoichi in question slipped inside, pausing only long enough to eye the blond boy's handiwork. "Nice seal work," she grinned, closing the door and taking a seat at the table. Eying the gloves, her grin grew. "Yeah, I thought so." Finally, she turned her attention to Hinata, who had sat up and had her favorite blond's head cradled in her lap. "You want to deal? Let's deal." So saying, she proceed to lay out her terms. Across from her, Hinata's eyes alternately widened, narrowed, and closed in irritation—eventually settling into a steady tick.
"You realize, of course, this means war?" the former Hyuuga pointed out calmly.
Anko nodded. "So, do we have a deal?"
"Go to hell!" the younger woman shouted, drawing a laugh from the special-jonin as the woman in question dodged out of the line of fire of a trio of shuriken.
"I'll take that as a 'no' then?" Anko smirked, slipping out the door and closing it behind herself.
As the dark-haired girl settled down, she glanced down at the blond below her before smirking. Grabbing his arm, she tapped one of the seals written there. A moment later, a somewhat confused-looking Naruto popped into existence, fully clothed, beside the bed. "Hi—" he started, only to be cut off by the girl raising a finger to her lips.
"Let's see her interfere from half the continent away," the girl murmured before gesturing between herself and the Naruto in her lap. "Summon us?"
The clothed blond blinked, then grinned as he caught on—quickly gathering the pair's things and throwing them onto the bed. A quick clone-and-disperse later, the bed, along with the original Naruto and Hinata, disappeared. Five minutes later, they reappeared, complete with their things. This time, Hinata's smile was ear-to-ear. The summoned clone quickly put everything back where he'd found it, then dispersed. On the bed, Hinata shimmied under the covers and curled up for a night of sleep. And in a formerly empty room of the Daimyo's home in the Land of Spring, an identical set of Naruto and Hinata had settled for the same. "Tomorrow is going to be a good day," the girl murmured as she drifted off.
Author's Notes: Wow... I've been on sort-of vacation from this story, and writing in general, for a year now. Eh, I won't apologize—I've enjoyed it, for the most part, and I needed it to get some things straightened out. This chapter has driven me just a little mad in the making, and is the sum total of three previous attempts. Hopefully, you'll think it's worth it. As usual, I have nothing ready for the next chapter but a few loose ideas. I do, however, have some things I've been working on off and on in the interim that I may decide to post.